By her own accounts, Mississippi authorities gave Carolyn Bryant Donham preferential treatment rather than prosecution after her encounter with Emmett Till led to the black teenager’s lynching in the summer of 1955.
Instead of arresting Donham on a warrant charging her with kidnapping days after Till’s kidnapping, an officer relayed the news that relatives would be taking her and her two young children away from home amid a growing furor. for the case, Donham said in a statement. memories of 2008 made public last month. The sheriff would later claim that Donham, 21 at the time, could not be located for arrest.
Once her husband and half-brother were jailed on murder charges in Till’s death, she said in the unpublished manuscript, two men from the sheriff’s office took her and her sister-in-law to the brig for a relaxed visit outside of his cell and even transported the women back home. Later, before their murder trial, the men were somehow allowed to attend a family dinner without guards, she said.
“I was shocked! How the hell did they get released from jail to come to dinner with us? I didn’t see who dropped them off or picked them up to put them back in jail, but we had a wonderful night together,” Donham recalled in the memoir, penned by her daughter-in-law based on the older woman’s words.
Nearly 70 years later, Donham’s account of the days surrounding Till’s kidnapping and lynching stokes new frustration among Till’s relatives and activists pushing for Donham’s prosecution, particularly now that a Mississippi grand jury has decided not to indict her with kidnapping at his abduction or manslaughter at his death.
For them, the revelations also raise questions about whether Donham, now 88, is still protected despite what they see as new evidence against her.
Carolyn Donham has rarely commented publicly on the Till case, and has not said anything publicly about the recent decision against the new charges. That’s why her memoir, made public by a historian who said she obtained it during an interview years ago, created such a stir when it was published a few weeks ago. Her decision not to charge her followed media reports detailing the document, but it is not clear whether the grand jury considered the content of her autobiography.
In the 99-page memoir, Donham said that 14-year-old Till, who was visiting relatives in Mississippi from Chicago, walked into the family store where he was manning the counter on Aug. 24, 1955. Neither husband Roy Bryant nor his half brother, JW Milam, were present that day; it was just her and Till, who was also given the family nickname “Bobo”.
In the account, Donham repeats her murder trial testimony that Till grabbed her and made lewd comments to her. She also whistled, she said, in the only part of her story backed up by Till’s cousin and witness Wheeler Parker Jr. during an interview with The Associated Press.
Evidence indicated that Till was kidnapped at gunpoint days later by two armed white men, and a woman likely identified the young man for them. While Donham denied in her memoirs that she identified Till and says that she instead tried to help him, she was named in a kidnapping warrant along with Bryant and Milam. Donham was never arrested, even though police knew where she was at least some of the time.
For a time, Donham said, she was taken away with the knowledge of officers and was “dragged” between houses by the Bryant family. Then, with Donham in the courtroom, the two men were tried and acquitted of Till’s murder. The kidnapping charges were later dropped and no one has been charged or tried since.
Following their acquittal, Bryant and Milam admitted to the kidnapping and murder in an interview with Look magazine.
In the memoir, Donham said he didn’t even know there was a arrest warrant for her until an FBI agent told him during a renewed investigation decades later.
The warrant remained unknown and unseen in the basement of a Mississippi courthouse until June, when members of the Till family and others found it during a search. At the time of the murder, Donham wrote, “I wasn’t even told there was a warrant.”
“I was never arrested or charged with anything,” she said.
The nagging question for some is, why not?
Keith Beauchamp, a filmmaker and activist who helped find the warrant, believes the decision not to indict Donham rests not with the grand jury members who voted against the new charges, but with a system that goes back generations.
Mississippi police, who were all white at the time of the murder, allowed Donham to avoid justice in a misguided quest to protect “white womanhood,” she said, and that same veil now covers her.
“The chivalric impulse allowed this woman to remain intact for 67 years,” said Beauchamp, who released the documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” in 2005 and helped write and produce the upcoming film “Till,” a drama that will premiere in October.
But in announcing the Leflore County grand jury’s decision not to indict Donham, District Attorney Dewayne Richardson on Tuesday cited neither race nor femininity nor anything else but evidence. Panel members were presented with testimony from witnesses who spoke about the Till murder investigation from 2004 to now, he said in a statement.
“After hearing more than seven hours of testimony from witnesses with direct knowledge of this case and the investigators who investigated this case, the Grand Jury determined that there was insufficient evidence to indict Donham,” said Richardson, who is black.
Members of the Till family were not happy with the decision. However, the Rev. Wheeler Parker of Chicago, a cousin of Till’s who was with the young man the night he was abducted from a family home, struck a conciliatory tone about the fact that no indictment was obtained, a decision he called “Unfortunate, but predictable.” ”
“The State of Mississippi assured me and my family that they would leave no stone unturned in the fight for justice for my cousin, Emmett. They kept their promise by presenting this latest piece of evidence to the grand jury,” he said.
Expressing his appreciation for the prosecutor’s efforts, Parker said one person “cannot undo hundreds of years of anti-black systems that ensured that those who killed Emmett Till would go unpunished, to this day.”
It’s unclear if a grand jury will ever have the fate of Carolyn Donham in their hands again.
At least three investigations ended without charges in less than 20 years, including a Justice Department review that closed without prosecution in December. Bryant and Milam died decades ago and other associates some believe that they have been involved are also dead. Donham is the only known person still facing the risk of arrest.
The Till family and others have vowed to keep pushing for someone to prosecute Donham, and there may be more living witnesses, said Dale Killinger, a retired FBI agent who investigated the Till case in an investigation that ended without an indictment on one count of felony. manslaughter in 2007.
“There is still the possibility that other evidence exists,” Killinger said in an interview.
Maybe, but it’s unclear if anyone with a badge is looking for her. The Justice Department has given no indication that it would reopen the case, and Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s office cited the Justice Department’s decision as saying no prosecution was planned even before Richardson announced that the grand jury had decided not to press charges.
In his memoirs, Donham denied doing anything to have Till killed and expressed regret for his family’s grief. She portrayed herself as another victim of the horrific crime, as someone who stopped trusting strangers and has been harassed by the media for decades.
For some, enough is enough.
“Donham may not have paid the price some wanted her to pay, but she has suffered for what happened to Till. Anyone who claims otherwise is not being honest with themselves. Time to leave her alone,” the Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper in Leflore County said in an editorial after the grand jury’s decision was announced.
For Ollie Gordon, another of Till’s cousins, justice may have been served even without anyone being convicted of the murder.
“Millisecond. Donham hasn’t gone to jail. But in many ways, I don’t think he’s had a nice life. I think every day that he wakes up, he has to face the atrocities that have occurred because of his actions,” he said. Gordon.
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